TK Whitaker, 97: ‘I feel I made a contribution. I must try to refrain from making a kind of idol of myself’

Ken Whitaker Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Ken Whitaker Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times


In conversation with Rosita Boland: TK “Ken” Whitaker wrote the groundbreaking First Programme for Economic Expansion, in 1958. He is a former governor of the Central Bank of Ireland and founder of the Economic and Social Research Institute

I’m not exactly surprised to be 97, because I believe in heredity, and my mother got close to 100. Ageing is not something that is troubling me. I think myself fortunate above all; that I’ve retained rationality and judgment.

One of the first things I recall is where we lived in Drogheda. The house was called Paradise Cottage, and I always thought that the name reflected something spiritual and livening. There were just the two of us, myself and my younger sister. We lived in this Paradise Cottage, and we regarded it as a cut above the commonality because of the name.

As a youngster in Drogheda, I remember going into a field where there were bulls, and shouting at them. As soon as they saw me I went running to get over the gate. That’s really the only time I’ve been scared, and even then I was afraid but enjoying fleeing from the terror. I have an adequate level of confidence. I don’t live under pressure or in fear.

I’ve been very fortunate in the career I chose. I joined the Civil Service as a routine experiment, and it turned out well for me. I almost daren’t say this, but I think it was also good for the country. I feel I made a contribution. I must try to refrain from making a kind of idol of myself. But at least two eminently sensible ladies put up with me for quite a long time. I had an exceptionally good career, and I think I got a great deal of help and support in that from both my wives.

There are obvious times when you miss your partnership and the stimulus of someone else taking part in your life. Now, in particular, there are times when I find myself on my own for long periods, and I miss the companionship. At the same time I feel certainly not hard done by, because I’ve been given a long life and a healthy one, so I’ve got more than my share of good things in life.

It is hard to outlive so many of your peers and friends. Of course, in some cases, it is more distressing than others. Some you can dispense with very easily.

I think luck and chance tend to play a pretty sizeable part in your life. There are things that happen that you have no control over that make a big mark on your life. Existence would be pretty dull if we didn’t have unexpected opportunities. Success was important to me, and it was also a bit of a surprise to me. When I joined the Civil Service I had no thought that it would bring me as far up the ladder as I went. I never thought my advice about matters of economic policy would be so opportune and reasonable.

I think the worst thing in public life is to not recognise your mistakes. I think you should always be open-minded and able to defend whatever views you have taken. Responsibility should be the key to actions.

What has really come across to me in my life is the importance of fair judgment, and of not jumping to conclusions, particularly adverse ones. And of seeing merit in everyone of some kind. I value people who have a broad education and experience and who have the mind to explore new ideas.

I deliberately don’t watch much television. I very rarely put it on to relieve boredom. I watch that Vincent Browne show sometimes. I regard him as doing a very fair-minded sort of job.

What makes me happiest is a day’s fishing for salmon. And a couple of pints at the end of it.

I have a Christian faith, and I try to observe the right principles. I do believe in an afterlife. I think it’s even necessary to ensure equity and adherence to good principles of setting a civilised standard of behaviour.

Do I have anything to say about what has recently been happening the economy in Ireland? I’ll dodge that question, if you don’t mind. But what I will say is that I want to see a progressive improvement in living conditions in Ireland.

I do have some regrets from my life, but I rationalise them out of the way as far as I can. There are some things I meant to do and never did, but the list is too long to mention. There’s nothing gnawing away at my conscience. Although I’m 97 I don’t carry around with me any baggage of unhappy regrets. I’m at ease.

- In conversation with Rosita Boland

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